Legislation to address uptick of veteran suicides at VA facilities

Three veterans took their lives at VA facilities this month.

A House Democrat is introducing legislation on Thursday aimed at addressing an uptick in veteran suicides at Department of Veteran's Affairs facilities. In five days this month alone, three veterans took their lives at VA facilities, including one who died by suicide in a crowded Austin, Texas, waiting room last week.

The legislation will be introduced by Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., an Army combat veteran and member of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee. It calls for "substantive data" from the VA regarding the trend in veteran suicides at VA facilities.

"Getting this data more quickly and thoroughly would guide Congress' efforts in understanding this crisis, and preventing these tragedies," Rose said. "We must ensure all veterans have the services they need when they need them, plain and simple."

The legislation would require the VA to notify Congress of any suicide or suicide attempt and the name of the VA facility and location where the event occurred, no later than seven days after it happens. Sixty days after the event, the VA would be required to provide even more information to Congress, including the enrollment status of the veteran, with respect to the patient enrollment system at the VA, and the most recent encounter between the veteran and any employee or facility of the Veterans Health Administration before the suicide or attempted suicide occurred.

VA press secretary Curt Cashour said the VA has not yet taken a position on the bill, but that the department has been transparent about suicide and suicide attempts. He also cited a study that showed veteran suicides occur less frequently on VA campuses than on non-VA campuses.

It's estimated that 20 veterans die of suicide each day, 14 of whom are outside the VA system. According to VA officials, the department has tracked 260 suicide attempts at VA facilities since beginning to track them in 2017, with 240 of those having been interrupted.

Cashour would not discuss the specific cases of suicides at VA facilities this month, but said, "Our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones affected by these deaths."

"Any time an unexpected death occurs at a VA facility, the department conducts a comprehensive review of the case to see if changes in policies and procedures are warranted. All VA facilities provide same-day urgent primary and mental health care serves to veterans who need them," Cashour said.

"Veteran suicide is a national public health crisis that we need to address -- that's why the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs has made it a top priority," said Committee Chairman Mark Takano. "Congress can help develop a response to these tragedies, but we have to know what's happening. I'm proud to support this bill to ensure Congress gets the data it needs as quickly as possible so we can work together to prevent these incidents and give veterans in crisis the support they desperately need."

In addition to Rose's legislation, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., put forth a bill last month that would boost funding and mental health staff at the VA, as well as seek alternative therapies and research to address veteran suicide. Also last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order which tasked agency officials with developing a strategy to aggressively tackle the issue of veteran suicide.

But one leading veterans group has called for a multi-agency investigation into what they're calling a "suicide epidemic among veterans and service members," concerned that the White House initiative would take "at least a year to establish and launch into action."

American Veterans, asked the inspectors general of the VA, Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to immediately launch the joint investigation following the latest deaths at VA facilities.

Between October 2017 and November 2018, there were 19 suicides on VA campuses -- seven in parking lots -- according to AMVETS.

AMVETS Executive Director Joseph Chenelly said that suicides at VA facilities "appear to be protests of last resort where health care systems, treatment programs, and the underlying cultures of the responsible federal agencies have failed them."

The VA's Fiscal Year 2020 budget request calls for $222 million for suicide prevention programs.

Any veteran, family member, or friend concerned about a veteran's mental health can contact the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255.